Has the ski industry got its head in the snow about climate change?

With mountainous regions under threat from global warming, is the winter sports business doing enough to protect the delicate eco-system in its care?

Every year, one million skiers take to the slopes from the UK alone, while a staggering five million Brits consider themselves to be skiers even if they don’t actually make it to the mountains. Europe is home to thousands of ski resorts, with Austria, France, Switzerland and Italy among the most popular. The Alps alone has more than 600 resorts with more than 10,000 pipes, half pipes and ski lifts catering for 85 per cent of the UK’s skiers. But what impact does the annual influx of tourists have on mountainous regions’ delicate eco-systems? And what effect is climate change having on the ski business itself?

Alpine regions are particularly sensitive to climate change. The Alps, for example, have been warming at three times the global average rate. Unlike other types of tourism, skiing is 100 percent dependent on temperature, weather and climate as travel consult Veronica Tonge of Responsible skiing explains ‘all three have an impact on a ski resort; temperature governs snow fall, snow melt and the production of artificial snow, weather can affect day to day operations, for example extreme weather can close ski-lifts. Climate is the overall trends for the future.' These factors vary on a regional basis for different resorts at different altitudes which makes it difficult to identify general trends. However, Veronica says that ‘there does seem to be an accepted view that snowlines are likely to rise, for example if it used to snow down to an altitude of 800meters, in future the snow may only reach down to 900meters. This of course is an important issue for low lying resorts.’  

The minimum amount of snowfall necessary for skiing is 30 centimetres but this increases with higher elevations and rocky terrain. As a rule of thumb, the snow depth must hold for 100 days (the 100 day rule) in at least seven out of 10 winters to be considered reliable. Snow reliability affects the number of safe and economically sound ski days available to skiers and depends on precipitation and temperature. It’s is a delicate threshold. Snow that reaches the ground will melt faster if it is warmer and fall as rain if it is warmer still. This fall-freeze-thaw action can create unstable snow packs, which is bad news for anyone trying to avoid avalanches. 

Climatologist, Dr. Christoph Marty of the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, says that in general snowfall seems to be decreasing but there are regional differences, which can be explained by the altitude of the ski areas. ‘There are larger decreases in regions of ‘critical altitude’ [below 2,000 metres] such as in southern Germany or some parts of Austria. Ski resorts above 2,000m are on the ‘safer side,’ he says. ‘Although it’s not that simple because some areas in Scandinavia are seeing increases in precipitation at the critical altitude.’ The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlighted the low-lying winter sports town of Kitzbuhel in Austria as a likely early victim of climate change. However, recent data suggests that the amount of snowfall it receives has remained steady for the last 40 years. ‘Data did seem to show that seasons started a few days later and ended a few days earlier with the snowfall less predictable and more periods of snow drought followed by fewer heavier falls,’ says ski website The Snowhunter’s Patrick Thorne. ‘This seems to correspond with the trend for more extreme weather due to climate change.’

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the ski industry. A changing European climate could open the doors for other resorts in Europe, with tourists leaving Spanish beaches in favour of Alpine destinations. ‘We had a fantastic season last year,’ says Davie Austin, Engineering and Environmental Supervisor at Nevis Range in Scotland. ‘How directly attributable that is to global warming or climate change is really hard to say but if that’s climate change bring it on.’ Controversially, Austin goes on to say that climate change, far from proving detrimental for the ski industry, could actually be beneficial. ‘Climate change could be a great bonus for us,’ he continues. ‘It could make a massive difference but in the direction that nobody thinks about. There seems to be a perception that everything is going to get warmer whereas I am not totally convinced that that’s the case because there are so many local variations. It could well change in the other direction.’

The conclusion that can be drawn from this with certainty is that weather is erratic and seasons appear to be shifting. Faced with more closed days, resorts need to think outside the box (or off the slopes) if they are to keep tourists happy and earn their season’s take. This has led to an increase in other winter activities, many of which have a significantly lower environmental impact than skiing such snowshoeing, husky dog sleighs and cultural activities. Veronica believes that these pastimes suit the changing demographic of UK skiers, many of whom were sold the ski package in the 70s and 80s and now might not be up to downhill skiing but still love the magic of a winter holiday.

The other adaptation is technological and is the main way in which ski resorts are responding to climate change. Landscaping, slope development and snowmaking come with hefty environmental and economic costs, which has meant that some of the most vulnerable resorts cannot afford to adapt. Snowmaking is the most widespread adaptive strategy and has come to be seen as a necessity for many resorts. Huge cannons blast compressed air and water particles to create artificial snow. This requires huge amounts of money, energy and water. The cost of snowmaking varies, and increases disproportionately with temperature, but costs a minimum of £116,000 per hectare. Energy reflects the single largest outlay but at least this can be (and in most cases is) sourced from renewables. The more arresting impact is that on water.

According to the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA) to cover the 23,800 hectares of Alpine ski slope for one season with artificial snow requires 95,000,000,000 litres of water: the equivalent of the annual water consumption of a town of 1.5 million inhabitants. Drawing water from rivers and lakes, and in some instances reservoirs, snowmaking affects aquatic life and water distribution. Yet the demand for water is so great that some resorts have built artificial lakes to compensate. Vulnerable to flooding, rock falls and avalanches, these lakes are obviously unsustainable, particularly when the third issue – temperature – is taken into account. Even though snow cannon technology has vastly improved over the last decade, they still require ambient temperatures of minus 2°C to operate, so when it’s above freezing even artificial snow is out of the question. Ironically, the smaller, often lower-lying resorts that are most affected by shifting snow lines and temperature increases are the ones unable to afford snow machines and are faced with closure.

On the plus side, many resorts are powered by renewable energy despite the large amounts required. According to an estimate produced by the French Institute for the Environment, in a single winter season, the 4,000 French lifts used around 734GWh, which is equivalent to a quarter of the annual energy production of a nuclear plant.
For individual skiers, by far the largest carbon contribution comes from travel. A 2007 study by Mountain Riders and the French Government Agency for the Environment and Energy Management calculated that 73 per cent of the CO2 emissions attached to a skiing holiday came from the flights.

The abundance of renewable energy available in many ski resorts means that tourists will produce more emissions during a London weekend than one in a hydro-powered ski lodge – providing you get the train. It is precisely for this reason that entrepreneur, Daniel Elkan, set up Snow Carbon; an independent website dedicated to helping skiers reduce their carbon footprint. ‘It’s incredible to think that so many skiers that currently fly or drive could travel to those same destinations by train with a huge carbon savings,’ he says. According to emission comparison experts, Best Foot Forward, depending on where you travel to in Europe, per passenger you will emit between 90 and 110kg of CO2 if you travel by plane, 200 to 250kg by car and just 17kg if you go by train. ‘Tour operators are absolutely crucial to helping skiers travel sustainability because they can take care of the whole booking process,’ adds Daniel. ‘What’s surprising is that few tour operators know the rail options are available to them, so we work with them to help them make the switch.’

Many people in the ski industry see themselves as victims of climate change and justify their winter activities as beneficial to local communities. It is true that many communities are entirely dependent on the ski season however in some cases local communities do not benefit as much as it appears. 'There are resorts where external companies, as well as running the lift operations, also run the shops and services, and you see imported products in the shops. In these cases, you have to question how much income trickles back to the locals,' Veronica tells us. 

So where does that leave the ski industry and the UK’s millions of ski fans? Clearly climate change is – and will continue to be – an issue, and although ski resorts have embraced renewables, more work is needed to cut down on unsustainable water use. Tour operators and travellers clearly need to be made aware of rail options, and although some tourist boards – Switzerland's is one – are making a point of highlighting rail travel, too few are following suit. Can a skiing holiday ever be 100 per cent green? Like most things, it’s impossible to make it entirely carbon neutral but small steps such as taking the train can make a huge difference. 

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